Matamata has become Hobbiton and Kaitoke is Rivendell. Photo: Getty Images

Does the future of film tourism in New Zealand lie in the hands of James Cameron? Victoria University’s Dr Alfio Leotta asks whether New Zealand should continue to adopt tales manufactured by Hollywood over our own stories to market local tourism.

Over the last 20 years or so the New Zealand Government has invested significant financial resources in the local film industry in the hope of enhancing the country’s position in the global market. New Zealand has been offering eye-popping financial incentives and tax rebates in order to attract international film producers to the country. The Government has routinely justified these investments as having major economic benefits such as the creation of jobs, the development of local infrastructures, the upskilling of local film crews and an increased international awareness of New Zealand as a tourist destination.

The positive impact of international film productions on local tourism became apparent for the first time in the early 2000s when, after the release of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy, New Zealand turned into one of the most popular film tourism destinations in the world. Tourists from all around the globe flocked to the country to visit the spectacular film locations, as New Zealand was enthusiastically embracing its association with the Middle-earth franchise.

Shortly after the release of the last instalment of The Hobbit trilogy in 2014, however, it became clear that Peter Jackson would not return to the Tolkien universe for more cinematic ventures. So what will become of the association between New Zealand, Middle-earth and tourism? Will New Zealand forever remain home of Middle-earth? Or will the interest in Hobbit tourism fade away, replaced, perhaps, by the craze for a new film franchise? While the locations of certain cult films such as The Sound of Music have been popular tourist destinations for decades, there are no conclusive studies about the long-lasting effects of film on tourism.

The superimposition of Tolkien’s universe on the geography of Aotearoa happened at the expense of indigenous meanings of place, so today Matamata has become Hobbiton and Kaitoke is Rivendell.

It is unclear what will become of Middle-earth tourism, but in the meantime the New Zealand Government remains interested in the potential of international film productions to generate tourism to the country. In particular, James Cameron’s recent announcement about the upcoming releases of the Avatar sequels (to be produced in New Zealand over the next six years or so) reignited enthusiasm in the potential positive impact of the franchise on the country’s economy. In 2013 Cameron and 20th Century Fox managed to negotiate an astounding 25 percent rebate with the New Zealand Government in exchange for the creation of jobs and other perks such as the prospect of Avatar-related tourist spin-offs. Normally, international productions intending to film in New Zealand may access a cash grant of 20 percent of qualifying expenditure, but Cameron & Co. received an extra 5 percent uplift as they persuaded the Government their films would deliver significant economic benefits to the country. 20th Century Fox promised to spend at least NZ$500 million on local production activity and hire New Zealanders to fill about 90 percent of live action crew jobs.

One of the factors that made Avatar eligible for the extra five percent rebate was its potential to both increase the international visibility of New Zealand and bolster its local tourism. The producers committed to hold at least one of the official red carpet premieres in New Zealand and include promotional material about the country in the home video releases of the films.

Since the explosion of the LOTR film tourism craze in the early 2000s, New Zealand tourism stakeholders have desperately attempted to capitalise on the association between the country and successful film productions. Tourism New Zealand used The Last Samurai as a marketing tool to persuade international tourists to visit the Taranaki region where the film was shot. Similarly, after the release of Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, the Wellington City Council produced a vampire-themed tourism video and temporarily changed the city sign near the airport into ‘Vellington’. So can New Zealand use Avatar to replace LOTR/The Hobbit as the new film-tourism attraction for international visitors?

Tourism New Zealand has already attempted to make the most of James Cameron’s international prestige by producing a video in which the Hollywood tycoon is seen exploring New Zealand natural wonders. The tourism potential of Avatar is further confirmed by the fact that Cameron’s project and Jackson’s Middle Earth films share a number of similarities. Both Hollywood franchises have the power to reach millions of viewers around the world and give New Zealand significant media exposure. Both Avatar and the Ring films feature a culturally and geographically consistent fictional universe, which plays an active role in the films’ narratives. More importantly, the premise of both franchises is constituted by the desire for exploration and the joy of discovery, which in turn appeals to the ‘tourist imagination’ of the viewers. In both Avatar and LOTR/The Hobbit the protagonists leave a familiar environment (Planet Earth and the Shire respectively) to visit new, exotic and adventurous places. Much of the narrative of both franchises is articulated through the opposition between the harmonious, reassuring memory of Home and the spectacular, but dangerous places visited by the film characters.

Avatar and Jackson’s films, however, are also profoundly different. While the cinematic version of Middle-earth was anchored to the physicality of the New Zealand landscapes, Pandora, Cameron’s fantasyland, was (and probably, will be) entirely recreated through computer-generated imagery. Similarly, while the LOTR films could rely on a large, pre-existing fan base, Avatar is yet to gain the same cult status among international viewers. Furthermore, unlike LOTR, Avatar already has a physical ‘home’ outside New Zealand, the Pandora theme park located within Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida.

At the moment it seems unlikely for any film franchise to be able to replicate the popularity and success of Middle-earth tourism in New Zealand. It is also probably still too early to speculate on the potential of Avatar’s tourism spin-off in New Zealand. Perhaps the question that should be asked at this stage is a different one: is Avatar film tourism actually desirable? Despite its economic benefits, an increasing number of New Zealanders seem to question and reject the conflation between New Zealand and Middle-earth. The superimposition of Tolkien’s universe on the geography of Aotearoa happened at the expense of indigenous meanings of place, so today Matamata has become Hobbiton and Kaitoke is Rivendell. Should the country continue to adopt stories manufactured by Hollywood studios? Or should it embrace the local histories and myths of the people, both Pākehā and Māori, who have shaped the identity of Aotearoa New Zealand? The development of New Zealand tourism over the next few years will be likely to provide an answer to these questions.

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